Revealing details about the supply chain and how it operates may be a hard pill to swallow for an industry that was built on proprietary technologies, secret sauces and exclusivity—but transparency has proved to be good business.
Mounting pressure from consumers has been driving the denim industry to pull back the curtain on what goes on in the supply chain, and key players are urging industry colleagues to further embrace the challenge.
“Transparency isn’t new, but people want more information and this will become the greater norm,” Jason Kibbey, CEO of The Sustainable Apparel Coalition, said speaking at Kingpins Transformers in New York City Tuesday. Talk at Transformers centered on ways the jeans business can become less opaque and more forthcoming with its practices, values and quality of ingredients.
In many ways, the apparel industry is playing a game of catch up with the food industry, which has already made major investments in sustainability and finding ways to be more competitive. Consumers want to know what chemical and fibers they consume (and wear), where it came from and how it was made, ideally packaged in a simple and accessible platform that can help guide their purchases.
“With sustainability, transparency must follow. They go hand in hand, transparency builds trust,” said Tricia Carey, director global business development, denim for Lenzing Fibers.
Transparency is designed to keep brands honest about what goes into creating their products. Frank Michel, ZDHC Foundation executive director, said consumers may have a false sense of trust in the brands and retailers they support. “Customers trust brands and retailers to know their supply chain,” he said.
However, that isn’t always the case and consumers are increasingly becoming skeptical about bold sustainability claims. And Alberto Candiani, co-owner and global manager of Candiani Denim, said they have good reason to be.
“There are many companies hiding little innovation behind big green leaves. It’s easier to invest in marketing than innovation,” he said. Transparency, he believes, is the only solution to greenwashing marketing in denim.
Adding to that, Kibbey likened a transparent company to living in a glass house. By being exposed and vulnerable to the outside world, everything from the décor and cleanliness of the house, to the activities that take place inside will change. That level of visibility, he said, puts the pressure on brands behave better, enhances accountability and unlocks collaborative innovation.
“Transparency is a tool to drive impact,” Kibbey continued. “As a collective industry we can start to recognize our challenges and then come together to create solutions. Bringing that information out is key to make it happen.”
Though transparency has evolved in recent years, it still remains a challenge in the deeper supply chain tiers and at large scale. Deciphering how much information consumers need to know is part of the hurdle for companies like Candiani, which use a portfolio of proprietary and exclusive technologies to develop their denim.
“As my father says, ‘Tell the truth, don’t tell every single secret.’ To be transparent, means let’s be honest, but I’m not going to tell you 100 percent of what we do,” Candiani said.
Michel said he believes consumers just need to have a framework of what to look for to help them make better informed decisions about their purchases.
“Don’t confuse consumers with too much information. Guide the journey,” Michel said. Empowered with knowledge, consumers may begin to value quality once more. “If I understand the value that goes into the product as a consumer, I will pay more,” he added.
Carey echoed his sentiment and stressed that retailers must stop being price promotional and that brands need to invest more in quality. “We have to get out of this vicious cycle and it starts with educating the consumer,” she said.
Retailers have greater abilities than in the past to help communicate that information to consumers. Before e-commerce, Buxton Midyette, Supima vice president of marketing and promotions, said brick-and-mortar retailers were challenged about sharing what goes into the product they sold. “Little signage, high employee turnover—they sold product on price,” he explained.
Nowadays with the internet, retailers can share robust stories. Midyette compared online capabilities to a “new age of J. Peterman,” the infamous catalog that would dedicate entire pages to text about products.
“Now we can do it with video, augmented reality, 360 [degree views]. People said it would end the industry but it’s an incredible boon,” he said about digital. “But it is a great environment to sell product.”
And consumers are taking to it, particularly the youngest generations. Of the 520 students that Kingpins Transformers founder Andrew Olah has taught in the Fashion Institute of Technology’s denim program, just one had requested denim from a specific mill. This year, however, four requested denim from Saitex for their final projects.
How they knew about the Vietnam-based jeans maker would have been a mystery a couple of years ago, but thanks to Everlane, the radically transparent label that uses Saitex for its own denim collection, millennials and Gen Z are looking beyond the final product.
“They love Everlane and they want to use the same materials,” Olah said. “It indicates that my students like brands that share their information.”